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God's philosophers : how the medieval…

God's philosophers : how the medieval world laid the foundations of… (original 2009; edition 2009)

by James Hannam

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247546,499 (3.89)1 / 96
Title:God's philosophers : how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science
Authors:James Hannam
Info:London : Icon Books, 2009.
Collections:Your library

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God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam (2009)

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Showing 4 of 4
Although this was an interesting survey of scientific thinking before 1500, Hannam works his thesis a little too hard, and sometimes a little too meanly. Science in our meaning of the word was rather thin on the ground before the Renaissance, but Hannam points out the necessary stops along the way, however silly they might seem now. He just pushes too hard to 'prove' that the Church was not in and of itself anti-science.
  ffortsa | Mar 9, 2012 |
The title says it all really. Hannam takes a look at Medieval science, though he doesn't use that word as it wasn't coined until a lot later, here it is natural philosophy, alchemy, astrology and early medicine. He looks at how people viewed things and the fact that studying nature was a part of a belief in God and his creation. Not surprisingly as most educated people were priests, monks and other religious people. The language of study was Latin and there was an international community of thought connected by the newly founded centres of learning - the first universities.

Hannam explains how Medieval thoughts and ideas developed. How this could skirt the boundaries of heresy and the later schism in the Catholic church that led to Protestantism. How ideas were suppressed by later generations, how the crusades and the reconquest of Spain introduced older Greek ideas and also Arabic thinking. This is a vast subject and Hannam covers it all in a very readable fashion. He includes very useful appendices - a timeline and a list of key characters were particularly interesting. He did lose me by his obvious bias, especially when it came to his thoughts on his further reading suggestions - a bit too blunt in my opinion.

So he came to his subject with an obvious bias. The idea that Medieval thought has been neglected though science is a sum of everything that has gone before including this period of history. I found this overstated as I had heard of a lot of the people and ideas he talks about already so there were no real surprises for me. That said I did enjoy reading this book and the way he presented his thesis. A very good overview of this period of history. ( )
2 vote calm | Mar 5, 2012 |
Hannam makes the argument that the development in philosophical thinking and study of the natural world in the middle ages is the cornerstone on which science was built during the later “scientific revolution” and that the role of the Catholic Church and medieval philosophy in the development of science is undervalued today. Hannam is a fantastic writer, in that he provides an engrossing history of the middle ages—especially providing interesting biosketches of the important philosophers of the time. Therefore, I recommend this book to popular readers of medieval history, history of science, or church history. However, Hannam’s book is not thorough enough to be considered a good academic history. He tends to provide the most interesting stories, ignoring the fact that some of his stories are controversial. Hannam also has a slightly defensive tone about the role of the Catholic Church during the middle ages. To most popular readers, I think the shortcomings of this book can be ignored, since it is a smooth and interesting read. ( )
  The_Hibernator | Feb 22, 2012 |
This is an entertaining read. And if you know as little about mediaeval science as I do, it's very instructive.

But it sets out to be much more than that. It proudly proclaims on the cover that it was shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science books. I don't know how that came about, because the author plainly grasps little of the science and mathematics he describes. A few glaring examples:

- p180 "'A moving body will travel in an equal period of time, a distance exactly equal to that which it will travel if it were moving continuously as [sic] its mean speed'

This result, dubbed the mean speed theorem by historians, is central to physics because it describes the motion of an object, any object, falling under gravity. Note that it makes no mention of how much the object weighs. (Nor does it make allowances for air resistance, and so strictly speaking applies only to motion in a vacuum...)"

Nonsense, the mean speed theorem as quoted Hannam is no more than a restatement of what is meant by mean speed. It's true irrespective of air resistance. What William Heytesbury wrote (in Latin) is that the mean speed of a body undergoing uniform acceleration is the speed halfway through the period of acceleration. (Hannam cites not Heytesbury's text, even in translation, but a 20th book about Mechanics in the Middle Ages.) Heytesbury's statement is generally true also. What is not true is that objects falling under gravity undergo uniform acceleration: that would apply only in vacuum.

- p263
"...The capillaries pass the blood through the tissues of the body where the oxygen is unloaded. They then carry the deoxygenated blood, now a purple-blue colour, into broader veins."

This is a howler. Deoxygenated blood is not purple-blue, it's dark red. Has Hannam never had blood taken from a vein, nor seen it taken?

"[Kepler's] greatest insight was that orbits are not circles, or even based on circles, but ellipses."
Well, I know what he means, but ellipses are circles stretched along one axis.

p330-332 has a lengthy explanation of Galileo and Oresme's remarks on the Mean Speed Theorem, but fails to mention the clarifying fact that the sequence of odd integers 1,3,5,... is the differences between successive square numbers - this was known to the School of Pythagoras.

Second, the book purports to tell "the story of how natural philosophy in the Middle Ages led to the achievements of modern science". (The introduction defines the Middle Ages as ending in 1500.) But the text has little to back that up. Hannam is keen to trumpet the many important inventions during the millennium or so he covers, without noticing that the anonymous inventors owed nothing to natural philosophers. He devotes much of his text to developments in astronomy, but seems not to realise that it was not until Kepler's analysis in the first years of the 17th century of Brahe's meticulous observations that astronomy progressed significantly beyond the best theories of the Ancient Greeks. Hannam includes a chapter on medicine and anatomy, but the only development he mentions that actually occurred during the Middle Ages was the increasing legitimacy of dissection starting in the 13th century. Hannam records no actual improvements in knowledge before the 16th century.

Generally Hannam fails to identify the big problem obstructing scientific progress in the Middle Ages, which was the almost total failure to grasp the importance of observation and experiment. Progress was made in mathematics, where cerebration alone is required, and in technology, where experiment took place, but seldom in natural science.

Hannam seems to be no more a latinist than he is a scientist - he twice writes of "caroline miniscule". Nor is he much of a stylist in English "Despite lacking a degree, young Galileo's talent for mathematics was obvious."

One thing that Hannam does bring to his subject is a very considerable willingness to defend the role of the Catholic Church in promoting science in the Middle Ages and beyond. He manages to tut gently when the Church misguidedly allows a man to be burnt to death for his heterodox views, but otherwise presents it as a voice of tolerance and reason in the face of the provocative discourtesy of scientists and others who presumed to doubt its wisdom.

In conclusion: do read this book, it's fun. But don't expect it to be as scholarly as the cover and the presence of copious citations might lead one to expect. ( )
1 vote PaulBread | Aug 9, 2011 |
Showing 4 of 4
James Hannam is a good writer ..., but he allows his thesis to dominate to the extent that he distorts the findings of recent scholarship to help it fit. He has major problems with structuring a book and using his conceptual terms coherently and much of what he says is not supported by scholarship. His Catholicism often blinds him to the real difficulties in thinking independently when the punishment for heresy, however it was defined, was so brutal on earth and everlasting in hell. None of this detracts from “the good read” and the interesting information he provides about his heroes but this can hardly be called a book of high academic quality.
Hannam's thesis is that, by thinking critically, and by challenging classical authority, the natural philosophers of the medieval world prepared the way for modern science. He sees – Hannam is not alone in this – the history of medieval thought as a long and sometimes prickly conversation about Aristotle. The Church had its own problems with Aristotle, but concluded that he was broadly right, except when he was wrong, and philosophers should respect Aristotle except when his views clashed with Holy Writ.
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Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, 'God's Philosophers' brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine. It also puts into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, St Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.… (more)

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